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Excerpts from Children of the Manse

from Chapter 2

Of the seven different houses and apartments Aunt Mary told me we lived in, I remember best the unpainted gray house at 6438 Bahner Road, down next to the Norfolk and Western Railroad loading yard in Sciotoville, and a mile or so from our grandparents’ house. We moved there after leaving the apartment in south Portsmouth. From the outside the Old Gray House looked abandoned. Some of the windows had cardboard in them where the glass was broken. The front porch sagged. Inside the wallpaper had gone brown with age, was torn in places, and was water soiled. Floor boards were loose. The roof leaked. I recall that the house smelled dirty and dusty, as old, uncared for houses do. To make matters worse, the house was chaotic and unclean.

A black pot-bellied stove stood in the center of the living room. To the right upon entering was the front bedroom in which we four children slept on a single mattress placed on the floor. When it was cold and there was a fire in the pot-bellied stove, we moved the mattress into the living room to be near the stove. The other rooms were my mother’s bedroom and the kitchen. I do not remember a bathroom inside the Old Gray House. Probably we had a privy. I do not remember a bathtub or a shower. I do remember a white bathtub with feet and a toilet with a white seat at our grandmother’s house.

I have memories of being left alone with my younger brothers and sister in the Old Gray House. Sometimes our mother was gone at night, sometimes overnight. There were rats in the house that came out at night and scampered around the floor. In the dark they seemed fearless. We could hear them in the darkness and sometimes feel the pressure of their tiny paws running on top of the blankets that covered us. Sometimes their whiskers and fur would brush against our cheeks.

A biological cousin who lived with his brothers and sister in a similar house in Scioto County tells a story about rats. The children were given four dime store Easter baby chicks, dyed purple, pink, and blue, as baby chicks were in the l940s. They placed the chicks in a brown cardboard box with food scraps and water and listened to their pleasant peeping sounds as they feel asleep. When they awoke the children could not hear the chicks peeping. When they looked into the box, only four tiny yellow beaks and eight tiny yellow feet remained.

I began to have nightmares about rats, not gray rats but black rats, and not normal-sized rats, but giant rats as large as bears with yellow eyes and ivory white incisor teeth that clicked together incessantly. My nightmares ended as one of the rats charged me and I awoke screaming. I put my hand up on my face and could still feel the hairy side of the rat that had just brushed against my cheek. I wanted to throw the covers back and flee to my mother but was afraid to leave the warm bodies of my brothers and sister on the mattress beside me. I was afraid the rats would attack me if I left the mattress. I thought I saw one rat stop and turn and face me. I could just make out its bright little eyes peering at me out of the dark, much as in the nightmare. The rat’s whiskers were in motion. I was terrified and pushed up against the warm bodies of my brothers for comfort. I tried closing my eyes and could hear more rats scurrying about our bedroom.

Finally, unable to control my fear any longer, I jumped out of bed and dashed into my mother’s room. She wasn’t there! I began to shout, “Mama, Mama, where are you?” I called for her in the house, “Where are you? Where are you?” I ran outside to the front porch to escape the rats and to scream for her. There was one distant street light shining in the dark. I become even more upset and shouted as loud as I could for her, first in one direction, than in another. I did not give up, shouting for her again and again and again. When my throat was so sore I could not go on, I stopped shouting and only cried. Finally, exhausted, I crumbled to the porch floor, curled up in a ball to keep warm and went to sleep, where my mother found me when she came home the next morning.

Once, Eunice left us alone for an entire week. I first heard that story from Aunt Mary. It most likely occurred in the spring of l941. I would have been five years old, and my brothers and sister four, almost three, and 18 months old. At first I discounted Mary’s story. But then I found a report in the social workers’ case files I obtained in l998 that our mother had indeed left us without any adult care for an entire week! We suffered in the bitter winter of l940-41. I can remember how the four of us spent entire days curled up on the mattress, huddled together under blankets, trying to keep warm. In the case file I also found an account of a fire we built on the living room floor in January of l941. We did not know that our house was a tinder box waiting to ignite in flame, and were so desperately cold we would not have cared. Helen Middleton, the social worker with ADC, reported, “The police were attracted to the Boggs home about 5:00 AM by a bright blaze in the living room. Investigation showed that the youngsters had built a fire of papers on the living room floor to keep warm.” The police report also noted that, “The mother was not present, having left after the children were put to bed.” When she returned, “The mother appeared remorseful,” the police reported,” and told us a friend was supposed to have stayed with the children.” I have no idea why the police were attracted to our old house in a remote area next to the loading yard of a railroad in Sciotoville, Ohio. Were they summoned by a neighbor? If so, that neighbor and those policemen saved four young lives.


from Chapter 5

Final Trials

Scarlet fever struck three-year-old Janey in February 1943. When her soaring temperature caused her to convulse, an ambulance rushed Janey to Mercy Hospital in downtown Portsmouth. Scarlet fever was followed by pneumonia and then by inflammation of Janey’s urinary bladder. Pus accumulated in her lungs. She hovered near death for weeks but eventually began to recover. She was released from the hospital at the end of March, the same month and the same hospital ward in which our older sister, Nola Mae, had died.

In early l943, Kline Dawson and his wife, Alice, arrived to take charge of the Big Boys and Big Girls dormitories. Kline Dawson also supervised us in the Little Boys dormitory on Wednesdays when Mrs. McKenzie took her one day off each week. On Wednesday evenings we ran down to Route 52 to wait for Mrs. McKenzie to step off the bus and danced around her joyfully. Her return signaled the end of another miserable day under Kline Dawson. We dreaded Wednesdays.

Dawson, a retired postal worker in his 60s, moved about with a blond wood crutch under his left arm, possibly the result of years of carrying heavy mail bags. Because he disliked sunlight his face was sickly white, as was the bald patch on his crown, an albino island surrounded by gray crew-cut hair. Kline Dawson did not laugh and rarely smiled. He never placed his hand kindly on a boy’s shoulder to give a word of encouragement. Sometimes he dropped his blond wood crutch to the ground to grab a boy within reach by the arm. Like a predator Dawson would pull his victim to his left side and strike him across the face with his open right hand, on one finger of which he wore a bulging Masonic ring. We lived in fear of Kline Dawson and came to believe he hated us just because we were Little Boys.

As soon as warmer weather arrived in the early spring of 1943, Dawson began taking us on hikes through the woods on the south side of the Home property. He was assisted by one or two high school students from the Big Boys dormitory. We did what boys love to do: run along paths in the April sunshine, yell to celebrate the arrival of spring, chase butterflies and hunt for tadpoles. Our joy was short-lived when, during the day, one of us would offend some unknown rule of the Dawson code. This included straying off the path or playfully scuffling. Dawson would then order us back to the old apple orchard to set up a switching gauntlet, a disciplinary innovation of his own creation.

While he leaned on his blond wood crutch, Dawson sent his high school assistants to cut long branches and when they returned, he and they positioned themselves across from each other, four or five feet apart, forming a gauntlet through which we had to run. In our fear, time stopped. The orchard hardly existed. In our fear, we could see nothing but Kline Dawson and his lieutenants in two rows waiting for us, swaying their long black switches back and forth low to the ground. Anxious, stamping our bare feet in place, we took turns running as fast as we could the ten yards or so to where our tormentors stood. If we ran fast enough we felt the switch lashes only half a dozen times. Once through the gauntlet we looked back to see pale-faced Kline Dawson, swinging his switch in broad arcs, leering at the other victims as, one by one, they ran the gauntlet. We rubbed the purple welts and our sometimes bleeding legs to ease the sting.

On another occasion, a Wednesday when Kline Dawson was ill, his wife Alice substituted for Mrs. McKenzie. We were all gathered in the first floor bathroom. Alice Dawson was the double of the wife in Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting except that Alice had a glare that girls in her dormitory said could whither daffodils and turn boys to stone. She spent part of her days hiding behind curtains and doors to observe us secretly, looking for infractions of the Home’s rules or misbehavior she could have her husband punish. We called her “the spy.”

On this occasion Alice pointed a long crooked forefinger at a spot on the wall less than a foot in circumference from which plaster had fallen. We all knew the plaster had been falling for weeks, bit by bit, dislodged as we reached up to pull our toothbrushes off little brass hooks with our names above them. We stood silently, eyes cast down or raised to the ceiling, as Alice Dawson harangued us. Our legs began to ache from standing. Alice ranted on with the tenacity of an inquisitor, determined to identify the guilty. Such interrogation eventually leads to doubts. Maybe I was guilty, I thought. Not that I had kicked all the plaster off the wall, but I could well have dislodged a piece as I reached up the wall for my toothbrush. The possibility that I might have had something to do with the fallen plaster was not strong enough to make me admit responsibility, however. I feared admission of any guilt at all would mean punishment by Kline Dawson, for whom Alice lovingly reserved the pleasure of disciplining errant small boys. Then she threatened us with a switching gauntlet. Suddenly, to my utter surprise, my hand rose in the air as if someone else was controlling it and I heard myself saying, “I did it.” I immediately felt isolated and embarrassed to become the center of attention. To this day I do not know why my hand suddenly developed an independent will of its own, but it was not to spare the other boys in an act of selflessness. The greater surprise was that Alice Dawson did not turn me over to her husband-executioner. She made me stand in the hall facing the wall for 30 minutes, the lightest possible sentence in the Home for any offense.


from Chapter 9

My Special Role Ends

Ann Minnis predicted there would be rough spots in our first year with the Luchs. My delight in our new life in the manse did not mean I understood how the Luchs would challenge my special role in the lives of my younger siblings. What the Luchs and eventually my siblings saw as bossing, I saw as faithfully discharging my responsibility as the leader of our little pack against an indifferent world. Moreover, I was truly afraid during those first months that any misbehavior on our part might cause us to be sent back to the children’s home. I sometimes encouraged good behavior with the verbal threat, whispered out of the hearing of our new parents, “If you don’t stop that, we’ll all be sent back to the children’s home.” It usually worked.

I also did not understand that as the Luchs began to replace me as our parents, relations with my brothers and sister would change. We were unusually supportive of each other when we arrived in Athens, a characteristic Grace Monigold would remember many years later. “You weren’t like other kids,” she said. “You stuck together. You really did.” Over the course of the first year in Athens, however, the special bonds that had helped sustain us through years of neglect and shared danger began to weaken. My three siblings began to move away from our mutual dependence and the close cooperation the psychologists had observed while we were at the children’s home. They began to behave more as normal siblings do, at times cooperative and loving but also at times competing with each other and challenging me.

I saw this rejection of the role I had played as a rejection of me and I took it hard. The increasing refusal among my siblings to accept my parental role hurt especially in the case of Billy. Billy and I were often taken for twins. We had not been separated since he was born except for the few months at the children’s home before he joined me in the Little Boys dormitory. With Lonnie out of the picture, my closest human relationship was with Billy. We had been through much together and were so closely bonded that I sometimes felt the two of us were almost one being. Billy’s new refusal to accept my direction as the Luchs began to become our mother and father hurt my feelings most of all.

So after the first honeymoon weeks, tensions developed between the Luchs and me. They were not interested in accommodating the child-adult I had become. My fierce sense of independence and strong resistance when I thought my interests or what I thought was best for my siblings was being challenged, surprised and frustrated them. They especially did not enjoy having a rival eight-year-old parent in the house. My behavior, formerly important to keeping the four of us together and even necessary for our survival, was no longer appreciated. Once they had recovered from their surprise, they decided they did not like my taking the book out of our new father’s hands, announcing “I can read that,” and doing so. I did not try to undermine them. I participated as enthusiastically as my siblings in the programs and activities they organized for us. But I did resist surrendering the special role I had played for as long as I could remember.

I look today in disbelief at some of the movies of us that first year. I was like a drill sergeant inspecting new recruits. Once we were in position to be photographed I would step in front of the other three, look them over, tuck in a shirt here, pull an arm down straight along the body there, and make sure everyone had their hair combed and our line was straight. Only then would I step back in place as the last in line. During our first months at Rufus Putnam we all went together to the stairwell where two women behind a table sold war bond stamps each month. I lined the other three up, counted and put the correct amount of money in their hands, and one by one as they came forward, told the war bond women how much money they had and how many 10 and 25 stamps they wished to buy. Then I showed them how to paste the stamps in the new books we had been given. No adult help was asked for or needed. In the first month in the manse my siblings found such behavior perfectly normal and the Luchs did not object. The Luchs sometimes even found my behavior amusing. But not for long. They began to see me as a difficult child. I was standing in their way. In their view I was resisting their wish to be our parents. In my view I was behaving as I always had and protecting a role that defined who I was. The tensions between us day by day were an undercurrent hardly visible to an outside observer, but I could tell when the Luchs were annoyed with me, as they could tell when I was upset with them.

The Luchs wanted me to become a dependent child again. But having enjoyed some aspects of being a parent to my brothers and sister, I could not easily surrender my role as leader and protector of our little tribe. I felt the Luchs did not understand my situation and I sometimes accused them of being unfair. Moreover, accepting them as my father and mother was not easy for me. For one thing, they would have to earn my trust, which could no longer be freely given to any adult. In the back of my mind lurked the possibility that the adoption would not work and we would be on our own again, one more time failed by adults. I also continued to feel a bond with Lonnie. There were days when I was angry with the Luchs and even periods when I thought I wanted us to go back to the children’s home, though no one remembers that I ever said so out loud.

More and more the Luchs challenged what they saw as the bossy sergeant in me, mostly by sending the sergeant off to his room alone and without supper. It became a test of wills. If they denied the sergeant supper, the sergeant was determined to remain in his room until they confessed their error and begged him to return to the family table. On their knees! Pleading! If the sergeant had to go to school the next day, he went but he refused to eat breakfast and fasted all day.

Of course, the Luchs did not confess their error or beg me on their knees to come and eat at the family table or offer any special invitations to rejoin the family fold. They were as determined as I to win this contest of wills and authority and assumed I would return to the family table after 24 hours of hunger and I did. My return was a delicate matter. I avoided eye contact with everyone, ate quickly and quietly and intended to ask, as was the rule, to be excused as soon as I was no longer hungry. If anyone had made any reference to the incident for which I had been disciplined, I would have bolted from the table. After a few minutes it felt good to be back at the family table, to be included again. Usually someone, often Charlie, would say something unrelated and funny to break the tension. We would all laugh and our fellowship began to be restored. I was not the only one sent to my room, but I held the record during our first year in Athens.



lewis richard luchs


Lewis Richard Luchs is a retired Foreign Service officer who worked in seven capitals in Africa, Europe, and Asia and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in l985. 

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No part of this website may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage or retrieval system without permission from the Lewis Richard Luchs, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.Children of the Manse, by Lewis R Luchs. Published October, 2009. Children of the Manse entertains as it describes how four wounded children respond to intelligent and loving foster care. ISBN 978-0-578-03523-9, 9780578035239

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